Single Dad's Loss

KATIE

For someone who worked with babies day in, day out, I had to admit, I had no clue what I was doing. I figured Leah would have everything the little man needed at her place, but when I looked at Hayden, I realized he wouldn’t be able to go over there and touch anything right now.

He’d gone through the social worker’s paperwork as if he wasn’t concerned, then he’d strapped the little guy into the car seat, which the social worker had left, and we went to the store. We bought a bed, clothes, diapers, formula… Everything we’d need. He was silent most of the time, his expression hard, and I was terrified of asking him what he was feeling.

“Anything you need?” he suddenly asked.

I stared at him, brows furrowed. “Come again?”

“Well, I figure you’ll be at my place for a little while, which I’m grateful for because I know I’ll fail. I don’t have children. I don’t even have nieces and nephews. Hell, none of my friends have small children. I have no idea how to take care of one. You’ll be able to show me the ropes; otherwise, I’d have to disappoint Leah and give the child away.” His voice cracked, showing emotion for the first time since we left the house. I probably shouldn’t have let him drive.

For a nurse, I wasn’t very good at thinking under stressful situations.

“I meant it, Hayden. I’ll be there.”

Although the thought of being in his small house for any length of time terrified me because the way he held Cory made me want to see where he and I could go.

With my work schedule, I had quickly realized relationships were impossible, and I couldn’t handle breaking his heart. He was a good guy. That much I knew. The last thing he deserved was someone coming into his life not having the intention of staying.

I lived for my job. Everything else came second.

It was why, at thirty-one, I wasn’t married, didn’t have children, and hadn’t even gotten a cat. I couldn’t remember the last time I binge-watched anything, and the books I owned were covered in dust.

Work was my relationship, and I didn’t see any reason to change that.

“So, do you want anything special to eat?”

I shook my head to clear it, then tried to focus on the question Hayden had asked. “Yes. I’ll get some things. Do you have tea?” On cold nights, I found nothing more comforting than a cup of tea.

I had a feeling I’d be needing a lot of those.

“Grab whatever. Just assume I don’t have anything.”

He was pale, his dark hair a strong contrast. I hesitated a moment, then walked around the cart and wrapped my arms around his waist. He stiffened, then slowly relaxed and hugged me back with one arm, his other one holding Cory, as if he hadn’t ever done anything else but watch after a baby.

It was heartbreakingly sweet, yet I knew he was a mess. He didn’t have to say it. I knew it was simply impossible for him not to be.

* * *

HAYDEN

I had no idea what I was doing, yet when we got home, Katie put up the small travel bed we’d bought, while I made a bottle for the little man.

I put his car seat on the counter, making sure I had a clear view of him, but he was sleeping peacefully.

His lashes were long and red, just like his mother. His hands looked so tiny, so delicate.

Swallowing, I forced my eyes away from him, reading the instructions on the package, not understanding a single word.

I was suddenly a father, at least in the eyes of the system. Hell, I had no doubt Leah’s parents thought I’d lied to them all along. I wanted to call them, see how they were doing, offer my condolences, but I wasn’t sure they’d be receptive.

Besides, I didn’t want to believe Leah was gone. I hadn’t said goodbye, hadn’t hugged her one more time. We’d planned on me being there for the birth, then not getting together again until after her mother and father went home. Honestly, I didn’t think she had any intention of calling them until after she’d gotten out of the hospital. They had always been close, but over the last few years, I’d seen cracks in their foundation. I didn’t know why, but Leah had once mentioned she thought her parents didn’t approve of her still not being married or her being as close to me as she was. I’d never asked again because, well… She belonged in my life like the house I lived in, and I was going to let sleeping dogs lie.

They’d moved to a different part of town when Leah and I had left for college, probably expecting her to never return to their small-town home, but Leah had come back to be a teacher, loving being away from the big city and enjoying the same neighborhood she’d grown up in. She loved the area.

When the water boiled, I took it off the stove, realizing it had gotten too hot. While I let it cool down, I spooned some formula into a bottle, then closed my eyes and willed my mind to make sense of the last few hours.

Cory whined, so I unbuckled him and picked him up carefully. Katie had shown me the best way to hold him. Luckily, it seemed to come naturally. The boy quieted the moment I held him close, so I shifted him in my arms until I could look at him.

“You’re pretty, you know that?” I smiled softly. “You get that from your mom. I wish she were holding you right now, though. You got the worst of luck having me as a dad. Not that I am… She should be here, buddy. Your mommy should be here…”

A sob escaped my lips. My legs shaking, I cradled Cory against my shoulder as I slid down the counter to the floor. I cried, wishing I could stop, even though I knew it was impossible.

Katie quietly came in and sat next to me, wrapping her arms awkwardly around me, but I didn’t mind.

“I’m so sorry, Hayden,” she whispered, her voice thick with tears. I couldn’t believe she’d offered to stay and help me out. Even more, I couldn’t believe I’d allowed her to. She didn’t owe me or Leah anything, yet she was here.

“Why are you crying?” I asked quietly.

She chuckled, wiping her cheeks. “I’m super emotional. Always have been. If others cry, I tear up, too. Cute dog? I tear up. A show where they help people who can’t help themselves? I tear up. I’m a crybaby.”

I smiled through my tears. “You’re adorable.”

“Well, thank you. I guess it could be worse. I could be nice.” She grimaced.

“What’s wrong with nice?”

Katie grinned. “Nice is the zone you can never get out of again.”

“Female logic.” I shook my head, then sobered again. The urge to cry had passed, which I was grateful for. “Thank you,” I muttered.

She took my hand, something she seemed to do a lot, and entwined our fingers. “What for?”

“For having come with the social worker, for screwing my head on straight, for being here. The person I’d usually call to help me if I didn’t know what to do would be…” I swallowed hard.

“Leah,” she finished, and I nodded. “Why weren’t you a couple? I mean… She was beautiful, and you two were close. It’s… I don’t know. I didn’t think it was possible for men and women to just be friends.”

I rested my head back against the cabinets, listening to Cory’s even breathing for a few seconds, then glanced at Katie again. “She wanted passion. I wanted need. You know, the feeling of missing someone, needing to touch them the moment they come into the room. That’s what I wanted, but it was never there with Leah. Yes, I missed her when we were apart, and I’ll miss her like crazy every day to come, but that’s it. I didn’t want to touch her or constantly hold her. Hell, we weren’t even the ‘cuddling’ best friends. It was more like a sibling relationship. You didn’t know us well enough to see that, but it’s true.”

She rested her head on my shoulder. “I’m jealous. I don’t even have a female best friend.”

I was startled. “What?”

I felt her shrug against my shoulder. “I have a colleague I like to work with more than the others. Does that count?”

No, it didn’t, but judging by her tone of voice, she knew that without me needing to say it.

* * *

KATIE

It wasn’t until early morning that Hayden had calmed enough that I could convince him to go to bed. Or at least tried to. He refused his bed, lying on the couch instead.

Cory had been surprisingly peaceful, sleeping a lot more than I’d assumed and eating a lot less than I’d expected. It was something to be concerned about, but I didn’t want to alarm Hayden. The truth was, even though he was too young to understand, I was sure Cory knew his mother no longer lived. Unfortunately, the little human had to deal with that stress in his own way.

However, if it lasted two more days, I’d suggest we get him checked.

“Can you believe one little boy can stink so much?” Hayden asked, coming in after throwing the diapers in the garbage can outside, then stretched his arms over his head.

I was distracted by the small patch of skin showing on his stomach, but forced myself to look away. “I can, and it’ll get worse the older he gets.” I smiled as he laughed.

“I know. A friend, Knox, has a teenager. He sometimes complains that he doesn’t exactly think showering is cool, so…” He rubbed his hand over his head, musing the nearly black waves. I suddenly wanted to run my fingers through it.

It was inappropriate, but it would probably distract him and maybe, just maybe, relax him enough to let him get a few hours’ sleep.

I’d be totally doing him a favor, right?

“We should’ve put his bed in here so I can hear him when he wakes up. I’m not sure how deep of a sleeper he is, and I don’t want to move him. I doubt I’ll miss it if he screams, but would you mind staying in the room with him?”

I had yet to lay down, so I was exhausted, but I had been secretly hoping to convince Hayden to take the bed instead…with me.

No such luck.

I stood from the sofa, his hoodie being the only thing I wore, which was long enough to reach the middle of my thighs. “Hayden, let me take the sofa. First, you’ll be up with him, and second, I’m smaller. I fit better on the couch.”

He shook his head. “I can’t do that. You’re helping me out, so the least I can do is give you the bed.” He stepped in, surprising me by kissing my cheek. He blushed as he stepped back. “God, I’m sorry. It’s a habit. Whenever Leah stayed over…”

He shook his head, his brow furrowed. I could tell the exact moment his emotions overwhelmed him because he closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, his jaw clenching.

Maybe a distraction was the best choice. I reached up and brushed my fingertips across his cheek. His eyes met mine as he licked his lips.

“Katie,” he whispered. His hand cupped mine, but after a brief moment of hesitation, he lowered our joined hands. “I know what you’re doing, and I appreciate it, but I can’t let you do that.” He stepped back and smiled. “You’re adorable. A few days ago, this would’ve been my perfect evening, but now? I don’t have the time to woo you. I have an infant to take care of. Honestly, that’s all I can focus on right now.

“Sleep well. I put a shirt out for you so you can change into something more comfortable. I put nightlights around because you don’t know the house and I don’t want you to run into anything. I’ll see you when Cory wakes up, okay?”

Holy shit, I was wrong.

Adorable wasn’t better than nice. It was worse.